Questions and Answers

My Monday evening viewing has, for many years, often included Questions and Answers on RTE1, but this is the first time I’ve blogged one of the episodes (which should appear here soon). Among the guests were Ger Colleran, Editor of the Irish Daily Star, and Andrea Martin, solicitor and consultant on media law. So I assumed that there would be a privacy question related to the case to which I referred in a previous post.

I wasn’t disappointed. In the second half of the show, an audience member (I didn’t quite catch his name; was it Steven Maher?) duly raised the issue. And Ger Colleran, who was editor of the Kerryman at the time that it published the leak, predictably responded that he found the result of the case “disheartening”. He said that he doesn’t believe that a sex offender is entitled to privacy / anonymity; and he bemoaned the lack of political will to protect children from predators. With less populism, and greater clarity, Andrea Martin said that it was important “not to get too alarmist about this”. She pointed out that the privacy that was invaded by the leak and vindicated by the court’s decision last week, was that of the Gray family, not that of their nephew (the rapist). She also pointed out that the facts here occurred in 1999, and that the Sex Offenders Register was subsequently set up in 2001, so that gardaí can now monitor whereabouts of sex offenders after release.

The other guests were
– Denis Bradley, former Vice Chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, who agreed with Andrea and added that the press always want to find someone to blame;
– Brian Cowen, Minister for Finance, who built on Andrea’s point about subsequent legislation, referring to s62 of the Garda Siochana Act, 2005 on the confidentiality of information gathered during a garda investigation; and
– Ruairi Quinn, former leader of the Labour Party, who said his main concern was about vigilantism. All agreed that there was a case for greater resources for the gardaí to allow proper monitoring. All in all, apart from Andrea’s clear-sightedness, I found it a rather disappointing debate, almost a damp squib. There was little real engagement with the issues, and nobody pointed out that any disclosure law would not have justified vilifying the Gray family. In the absence of such a law, there was nothing to justify the garda leak. But it is not at all clear to me what legal wrong they committed against the Gray family in doing so. As I have said here already, how the leak amounted to a breach of the family’s privacy rights, rather than their nephew’s, is not clear to me. Of course, they suffered terribly from the campaign of vilification conducted against them, and it is in this harm that their cause of action doubtless lies. But nothing of this came through in the discussion on Q&A tonight.

Finally, on the discussion of the value of disclosure laws, a friend of mine commented in an email today that “we can never really legislate for the mob mentality but if we are going to provide for greater disclosure, in the interest of common good safety then we should at least try to ensure that the information is disseminated in a proper and prudent fashion and in controlled circumstances where we also as a State have made provision for the treatment and monitoring of repeat offenders or high risk offenders”. I could not agree more.

For the sake of completeness, I note that other questions came from Cllr Daithi Doolin (Sinn Féin; candidate in Dublin South East at the last general election), who asked about the impact of today’s Report (pdf) of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland; Emmanuel Sweeney (founder, I seem to remember, of a fringe Catholic party (which doesn’t seem to have a web presence; was it the Christian Democratic Party? and did he run at the last election?), on tomorrow’s National Development Plan; and one just for Ruairi Quinn on whether Pat Rabitte’s equivocation on a post election pact has damaged the prospects for the Labour Party at the next election. Ruairi: “No. No I don’t think so. …”. (As I’ve said here and here, I’m not sure I agree with Ruairi on this). In the end, there were many questions about the rights and wrongs of the Gray case, but very few answers.

Update: Daithí tells me that: “Emmanuel Sweeney has history with the ‘Christian Democratic Party’ (see e.g. Irish Emigrant 22.4.1991) and ‘Muintir na hÉireann’ (see e.g. Standards in Public Office returns for 2000), both Catholic-fringe microparties of very little parliamentary electoral success. He also has interesting form on Q&A, as this indicates:

The person RTE chose to voice the ‘ethical journalism’ question to Veronica was a member of the right-wing Catholic party, Muintir na hEireann. Veronica was introduced as the journalist whose attempt to interview Comiskey was ‘described as outrageous’. The studio audience questioner was named but not identified as belonging to the Muintir which had a short time earlier caused controversy by attacking the then government minister Mervyn Taylor during the divorce referendum, saying that as a Jew he ‘may not have a full understanding of Christian marriage’. The questioner, Emmanuel Sweeney, was allowed to denounce Veronica for ‘cheap journalism’ and for attacking Bishop Comiskey. It was only when a second audience member was given an opportunity to speak that Sweeney was exposed as a member of Muintir na hEireann.

(it’s about Veronica Guerin and Brendan Comiskey; Sunday Independent, 30.10.05)”.